A New View of The Boys Club

Ben Barres knows how it feels to be treated like a girl. Back in high school, Ben--who at that point was a girl named Barbara--was desperate to ditch sewing and cooking class for the "boy" stuff: woodworking, mechanical engineering, auto mechanics. Every year, Barres asked to join the guys; every year, the answer was "No." Same thing when it was time for college. A top science student and captain of the math team, Barres dreamed of going to MIT, but her guidance counselor winced. " 'Oh no'," Barres recalls him saying, " 'you'll never get in there'."

Barres did get in there and today, with a B.S. from MIT, an M.D. from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. from Harvard, Barres, 51, is a leading neuroscientist and tenured professor at Stanford. He's also a female-to-male transgendered person (Barbara became Ben in 1997) who is speaking out about discrimination against women in science--on behalf of his former female self and the young female scientists he mentors. Last week, in a commentary published in the journal Nature, Barres took aim at the gender-gap-in-science debate sparked in 2005 by the then Harvard president Lawrence Summers. Summers suggested that differences in "intrinsic aptitude" between men and women might explain why fewer women rise to the top. Barres says the problem isn't brain power, it's discrimination. The "Larry Summers Hypothesis" has no data to support it, Barres writes, and "amounts to nothing more than blaming the victim."

Barres's unique perspective began in childhood. Young Barbara wanted to join the Boy Scouts and hang out with her brother's friends, not her sisters'. For Halloween, she dressed as a football player. Dresses and jewelry? Not interested. Early on, says Barres, "I knew that there was something very different about my gender." The feeling persisted into adulthood. Dr. Martin Raff, Barres's postdoc adviser at University College London, remembers his student feeling "remarkable discomfort as a woman." Much about her seemed male, says Raff. The way she dressed (T shirts and jeans), the way she walked. If she had to put a dress on, says Raff, "it would bother her for days beforehand."

Gender, however, had always taken a back seat to science, as Barres excelled in the study of glial cells in the brain. It was his student's sharp intellect and boundless passion for science, says Barres's graduate adviser at Harvard, David Corey, that stood out from the start. Barres spent days and nights in the lab. Not infrequently, Raff remembers, Barres slept on the floor in his office. Romance never held much appeal. OK, Barres has always loved Tom Cruise ("He's cute"). But he's never been strongly attracted to either sex. "I used to try to go out on dates," says Barres, "but I'd always think, 'Gee, I wish I was in the lab'."

The scientist's physical transformation began at the age of 40, when Barres was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. When doctors recommended a mastectomy, Barres made a startling request: take the healthy one, too. With his cancer cured, Barres sought testosterone treatments to change his sex from female to male. He says he's lost the ability to cry (or at least cry a flood of tears), which he believes is purely biological. But the "psychic relief" of finally feeling comfortable in his own skin is huge: "I'm so much happier now."

Barres is speaking out because of his deep commitment to science and because he believes he and other senior faculty have a responsibility to help women rise through the ranks. Yes, there are clearly physical differences between the sexes, says Barres, but there's no evidence that those differences are relevant to academic achievement. At Barres's alma mater, half of the undergrad science majors are women, says MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, but women account for only 13 percent of the faculty. The disparity exists nationwide. "It's leakage along the pipeline all the way," says Stanford president John Hennessy. In his commentary, Barres says selection committees need to be diversified, women need help in balancing family with career (Barres wants to start a foundation to fund child care) and academic leadership needs to break the silence about sexism.

Given his accomplishments, Barres says it would be hard to argue that he suffered severe discrimination himself. But he experienced enough bias as Barbara to know how it feels. And he hears enough to know it hasn't gone away. After his article came out, Barres's in box was flooded with e-mails from female scientists sharing stories about the barriers they face. "It's time for women to stand up in one strong voice and demand their rights," he says. With a man named Ben Barres cheering them on.

A New View of The Boys Club | News